It so happens that over the 2017 holiday season, I've taken annual vacation from my job that pays down my mortgage, buys my groceries and pays my bills. For three glorious weeks, I get to actually work as a full-time writer. The glamour is palpable: after being woken up by the dog who wanted to be fed 6:30 a.m., the dog and I return to sleep in till 9 a.m. (My usual waking time is 6 a.m.) To shower or not to shower, the answer is elusive. I consider that perhaps this will be necessary after I’ve worked up a sweat snow biking in the afternoon and put it off for a while.
The weather is particularly inhospitable in Whitehorse on this late December morning: -30C on the day that I write, and there is no actual reason to leave the yard, let alone the house. The truck started leaking power-steering fluid last week and needs to be driven to the mechanic, however, it’s not plugged in, so forget that. Today, movement from the house will be limited to walking or biking.
My life partner is working out of town this week. Knowing I’d be alone in my home, I prepared for this precious writing time. Snacks are stocked, fridge is packed with cheese, meats and veg. The only thing I might have to do is bake some bread.
Once the curtains are open, the sky is still dark. Solstice passed last week, but increased daylight happens in seconds and minutes, not hours. Coffee maker switched on. Twitter feed perused. Breakfast made and eaten. Aforementioned dog and I play fetch in the backyard until his brown muzzle is tinged white with frost, a forecast of how he will look when he’s arthritic and smellier than he is now. It’s 10 a.m., and I begin.
I’m currently working on the biography of an American geologist, Helen Foster, who turned ninety-eight earlier this month. The work on the biography has lagged because the ‘paying’ job which has me sitting in front of a computer all day robs me of any desire to sit at a computer at night. I have been interviewing Helen for almost a year and there are hours and hours of recordings to be transcribed. This means me, sitting in front of my computer wearing my headphones and typing.
The sun rises to the east and lasers into the window of my writing room. My desk and computer face the window, and the sun’s relentless rays shoot at my eyeballs. It may be a form of pre-technology laser eye surgery; I will find out at my appointment with the optometrist later this week. My writing desk is a 1930s dressing vanity with the mirror removed. The desktop is too high, and I sit on an antique wooden dining chair from the early twentieth century with a low seat. After transcribing for an hour or two, my lower back gets sore, as does my butt. My shoulders stiffen. My hip flexors shorten. The pains of a writer are oh-so-very glamourous. My writing set up is far from ergonomically correct, but I love the charmingly routed edges of the dark wood, the ornate brass hardware and the six tiny wooden wheels of my writing desk.
The dog sleeps on his bed near my feet, and every once in a while he lets out the whimpers of his prey-chasing dreams. Throughout the day, I’ll take breaks to play fetch with him and take him for walks.
I find transcribing to be tiring, but the work is essential for this project. During breaks, I linger on Twitter too long and I check email too often. Today, there is a nugget in my inbox. This is the exciting part of being a writer. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help Helen donate her extensive personal archives of photos, journals and geology papers to some archive. In the past, she hasn’t found one that was willing to take it. Yesterday I wrote to the Alaska Digital Archives and today the reply is that the ADA is happy to help find a home for Helen’s personal collection. Bingo!
I’m also working on two personal non-fiction essays, one about working on the biography of Helen and one about the death of my sister, a year ago this month. Working simultaneously on these two pieces—switching between the subjects of Helen’s life and my sister’s death—is giving balance to my emotions this holiday season.
All this before lunch. Speaking of, my stomach grumbles, it’s time to feed the machine. After which I’ll return to observe the sun skimming along the horizon and then set, as I sit slightly uncomfortably, transcribing some more. I could get used to this.
Lily Gontard is a writer living in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines such as Geist and The Puritan Magazine. New non-fiction about a Greenlandic couple who sailed the Northwest Passage appears in the December 2017 issue of Up Here. Her non-fiction book Beyond Mile Zero (Lost Moose / Harbour Publishing) is a collaboration with photographer Mark Kelly which explores the vanishing Alaska Highway lodge community.
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